A little while back, I found the time to read The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. It helps that they’re relatively short and are fast reads. Collins mixes character and action well, and they certainly are page-turners, as we become more deeply invested in the fates of the main and secondary characters she has introduced.
They are also dark–with each book getting progressively darker and more disturbing. There are a lot of things I liked about the books. Here are five:
1. Violence and loss are ubiquitous, but not trivialized.
Each act of violence against another human takes its toll on Katniss’s psyche, as does each loss. We see the way it chips away at her sense of wholeness and integration. Over the course of the books, her psyche becomes more and more fragmented as each act that goes against her own ethical compass shreds a little bit–or a lot of–of her sense of wholeness–as does each loss of someone she cares about. Collins did a powerful job of showing this dis-integration, and unlike so many films in which violence is just part of the entertainment and the spectacle, in the world of the Hunger Games, where literal violence is spectacle, Katniss never gets beyond the conceptual line that Gale seems able to cross so easily in the beginning of the first book, when he suggests that killing a human surely can’t be all that different to hunting animals.
And so, she feels it all. The one thing that seems surprising is that she isn’t able to de-sensitize herself to it, at least in the moment. Then again, such de-sensitization is no protection in the long term–PTSD will raise its ugly head sooner or later.
2. Even the good characters are ambiguous and often unsympathetic.
It may sound odd, but I liked that Katniss often acted in a way that I found irritating. She was peculiarly clueless about things, but in a reasonably believable way. Similarly, her responses to others could be petulant and unpleasant. I liked that she wasn’t perfect–though what made that especially disarming was the fact that she was the first to admit her own imperfections, and to berate herself for such outbursts and responses. Other characters, like Haymitch for instance, are similarly unsympathetic and irritating at times, even if we like them on the whole.
I’d say the biggest two exceptions to this notion of ambiguity were Peeta and Prim. Both those characters were unambiguously “good” and sympathetic. Though Prim was always a peripheral character (what Hitchcock would call a “macguffin”–something/someone that motivates the main character deeply but is peripheral to the audience’s interest–so here, our main focus is on Katniss surviving the Hunger Games, not on whether Prim is okay), I did like the way her personality emerged and we got a glimpse of the person she was becoming, particularly in the third book.
Peeta was a little more difficult. Emotionally, he’s difficult to resist–this deeply kind, compassionate character. But the cynic in me struggles with his deep devotion to Katniss, and his almost saintly goodness. It starts to feel a little like wish-fulfillment (one of my pet peeves in books, I have to admit) when someone is so amazingly devoted, selfless and utterly patient in the face of such little reciprocity. Or so it seems to me, compelling though it is to read.
3. The situations Katniss faced were also deeply ambiguous.
I also liked that in the larger context, there was a lot of situational ambiguity. Certainly, there were some unambiguously sinister “bad guys doing bad things in a bad regime” in the books, but there were also a lot of factions and characters that were sort of good, or were associated with the slightly more desirable cause, but who were by no means particularly good in an absolute sense. I liked that often all the courses of action the characters faced were ultimately not all that great–that it wasn’t about A=good, B=bad. There was a lot of grey, and that meant that Katniss and the other characters were faced, squarely, with very difficult choices. This felt real–in everyday life, as in more extreme circumstances, there are rarely ideal solutions, and often the best we can do is choose the lesser evil.
And so, part of what made the books so compelling was not the spectacle of the violence, but rather seeing how Katniss and others dealt with those difficult choices–where she compromised, and where she held firm and faced the consequences (and wondering how we ourselves would deal with them, heaven forbid it would be necessary).
4. There are no easy resolutions–every choice has real consequences
The books are ultimately hopeful, but everything doesn’t get resolved and tied up with a neat bow. In that sense, the hope is relative rather than absolute. There are grave losses, and the characters remain scarred by them. We see, again and again, people who are never made whole, but who ultimately learn to live with the scars and to build lives in spite of them. As, indeed, we all must do, in the face of our own losses and challenges.
This also ties into my earlier point about ambiguity and difficult choices. It’s a darkly realistic world that Collins creates, and she doesn’t shield any of her characters from bearing the brunt of its challenges. I like that in placing them in these difficult situations, she doesn’t pull back from forcing them to deal with the consequences, both internal and external, and instead makes use of those consequences to pull us in even more deeply.
5. Katniss and Peeta play the Games intelligently. Their methods are often indirect, subtle and strategic, rather than straightforward charges into the fray.
I really liked that they were strategic, and worked out often ingenious ways to evade playing the game whenever they could. I liked that they forever sought out those small expressions of autonomy and selfhood, as a way of resisting the juggernaut and the pressures of an uncompromising regime.
I’m not saying that these moves and expressions of self were necessarily intentional. Instead, they were often just about a fundamental kind of survival–that of trying to stay true to themselves in the midst of a series of situations that challenged that kind of integrity again and again. In the first book, Katniss’s deeper process of being true to herself (trying to survive, while trying not to kill others, insofar as she could) involved compromises and lies (the act she put on for the cameras, to manipulate the audience in the Capitol, whose entertainment consisted of watching a bloodbath). It was compelling to see her having to balance compromise and integrity, because that’s something we face every day in our own lives, even if the stakes aren’t necessarily as dire.
The consequences of these acts of self-truth, of course, are far beyond what the main characters expect. They require that the characters rise to the challenge of playing the next round, while attempting to preserve some small pieces of autonomy–and sanity–once again.
The movie was a credible adaptation. Though it’s not a major point, I did find the depiction of Prim to be rather jarring. She’s twelve, and in the film, she comes over as much younger–bursting into tears at the prospect of having her finger pricked (all the more incongruous if she’s a healer). Other kids her age somehow manage to maintain their composure at the reaping, despite what fears they might feel, and so Prim seems oddly weak and inarticulate (and she didn’t remind me at all of Rue, who is dignified, wise, resourceful, and composed when we see her).
I assume the plan is to show her development and emerging maturity over the next two films, but still, I didn’t know that it was necessary to have her seem so ineffectual. Her lack of stocism made me feel all the less sympathy for her–though perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, given that I really liked the way the book managed to balance her fear with her resolution in those early scenes. The glimpses we had of her in the book helped establish why Katniss cared so much, but would likely be impracticable to “show” in the film.
Here there be spoilers–DON’T read this bit if you haven’t read the books.
Back to the books. Other than my wariness of Peeta’s unerring goodness, which still came out towards secondary characters, even after he’d been tortured and broken in book 3, my other issue around him was with the swiftness of his recovery from what had been done to him. I know that this was part of the “hope amid loss” theme of the books, but here again, he seemed kind of amazing and on the edge of credible, particularly given that Collins is otherwise so unflinching in portraying damage and consequences.
Everything I’ve read about torture victims speaks of a slow healing process, and of long-term mental fragility. It is often years before glimpses of the former personality emerge again–if they ever do. Given what he’d been through, and the ways in which his psyche had been abused, I found it something of a stretch to have him recovering and being so wonderful again in such a tight timeline (a mere matter of months).
I acknowledge that is a niggle, which arises precisely *because* Collins raised the bar with her portrayal of so many other facets of the narrative and the psyches of the characters. And of course it was important to the resolution that he play a role in the final stretch of events. Nor could the lead up to the showdown happen years later (which would have given him time to heal) without losing a lot of tension, urgency and momentum. Narratively, it was necessary, but like so much else about Peeta, it did feel like a stretch (don’t get me wrong, I *love* the Peeta character, in part because I love men with gentle souls–men who are truly and deeply kind, giving, and generous. As far as I was concerned, I wanted to shake some sense into Katniss on more than one occasion, and frankly, Gale was never a contender for me. He had integrity of his own, sure, but his revolutionary’s sensibility about justified killing of innocents in cold blood, in support of the cause, made it a relatively easy choice for me. I acknowledge that it’s a necessary perspective if you’re going to be a successful revolutionary, sure, but there are a lot of things I can acknowledge are necessary without their being appealing to me. His underlying ruthlessness and anger were turn-offs.).
In all, if you’re in the mood for a trilogy of dark, dystopian page turners–they probably won’t give you warm fuzzies but will provide plenty to think about–I highly recommend the Hunger Games Trilogy, if you haven’t read it already.
And if you have, what did you think? Do you agree/disagree with any or all of the points I’ve raised?